Houston Grand Opera Presents the New York Premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's THE PASSENGER, Now thru 7/13
Houston Grand Opera's U.S. premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger- the long-suppressed Holocaust opera that Shostakovich declared "a perfect masterpiece"- earned virtually universal acclaim earlier this year. The Chicago Tribune declared The Passenger to be an "engrossing, thought-provoking experience," while the Houston Chronicle praised the presentation for "ingenious storytelling, potent music, commanding performances and vivid, fast-paced staging." Now HGO brings the David Pountney production of The Passenger for its New York premiere in three performances- today, July 10, 12, 13 -at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival. Pountney's staging was inspired, in part, by the soaring space of Park Avenue Armory's massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall, where he produced Zimmerman'sDie Soldaten for Lincoln Center Festival in 2008. HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers will conduct the HGO Orchestra and Chorus; reviewing the Houston performances, the Wall Street Journal praised Summers for the way he "shaped the evening with enormous care." The Dallas Morning News commended all the singers - headed by mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt in the title role - by saying: "Top to bottom, the cast is excellent."
Weinberg (1919-96) based The Passenger on a Polish novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz. The Polish-Jewish composer also knew intimately the dangerous vicissitudes of life in midcentury Europe; he was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. Yet escaping to the Soviet Union would come to mean a second period of danger and discrimination for Weinberg under the cultural repression of the Stalin regime. Many of Weinberg's works were banned; others, like The Passenger, were deemed "cosmopolitan"-a euphemism for Jewish-and censored by the Kremlin, doomed to be unperformed during his lifetime. Today, his works are enjoying a posthumous resurgence, including several recordings. The composer was the subject of a recent monograph titled Mieczyslaw Weinberg: In Search of Freedom, with the U.K.'s Observer recognizing him as "an artist of fierce honesty and compositional dexterity."
Set in the late 1950s, The Passenger depicts a German couple, Liese and Walter, who are on board an ocean liner where Liese, a former SS officer, thinks she recognizes among their fellow passengers one of her erstwhile Auschwitz prisoners. Juxtaposed with scenes on board the luxury ship are flashbacks to the railway tracks, ovens and barracks of the camp where she once wielded authority. Liese is never able to confirm whether the woman she sees is truly Marta, the Jewish woman she once manipulated, and The Passenger makes no attempt at closure or reconciliation. Instead, the harsh realities of the mass murder Liese helped perpetrate, and of her inescapable guilt, are unsparingly confronted.
Despite the Soviet suppression of Weinberg's masterwork, The Passenger had the staunch support of fellow composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who wrote in 1974:
I shall never tire of the opera The Passenger by M. Weinberg. I have heard it three times already and have studied the score. Besides, I understood the beauty and enormity of this music better and better on each occasion. It is a perfect masterpiece.